LOS ANGELES -- Enforcement began Monday in Los Angeles for one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country, a sweeping measure that requires proof of shots for everyone entering a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to theaters and gyms to nail and hair salons.
While the latest order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus took effect Nov. 8, city officials spent the past three weeks providing business owners the information and resources business they need to comply.
“Nobody wants to penalize anyone,” said Sharon Tso, the city's Chief Legislative Analyst, whose office drafted the enforcement rules. “That's why we've been prioritizing education.”
A first offense will bring a warning but subsequent ones could produce fines running from $1,000 to $5,000. Inspectors with the Department of Building and Safety will enforce the mandate, and the city hopes to eventually get assistance from the LA County Department of Public Health, Tso said. She didn't immediately know if any warnings or citations were issued on Monday.
Los Angeles is among a growing number of cities across the U.S., including San Francisco and New York City, requiring people show proof of vaccination to enter various types of businesses and venues. But rules in the nation’s second-most-populous city, called SafePassLA, apply to more types of businesses and other indoor locations including concert halls, museums and convention centers.
A sign reminding customers to be prepared to show their vaccine cards hangs at the Muddy Paw Coffee Shop in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, where owner Darren Laborie said he's thankful that the vast majority of his regulars have happily complied with the shifting regulations over the past year and a half.
“We have to adapt to whatever rules are coming at us. And our customers go along with us,” Laborie said. Those that don't want to wear a mask or show vaccine proof can sit in the outdoor patio or take their coffees and pastries to go, he said.
One year ago, Los Angeles was becoming the state’s epicenter of the worst spike of the pandemic in California. By January an average of 500 people were dying statewide every day.
To guard against another spike in cases, deaths and hospitalizations, the LA City Council voted 11-2 last month for the ordinance that requires people 12 and older to be fully vaccinated to enter indoor public spaces including sports arenas, museums, spas, indoor city facilities and other locations. Retail stores and shopping malls are exempt.
Negative coronavirus tests within 72 hours of entry to those establishments would be required for people with religious or medical exemptions for vaccinations. Customers without proof can still use outdoor facilities and can briefly enter a business to use a restroom or pick up a food order.
Business trade groups have said the mandate will sow confusion and could present safety concerns for employees tasked with checking customers’ vaccination status. Laborie shares concerns that the rules could place “an undue burden” on small business owners.
“A lot of businesses can't afford to have employees spending their time at the front door all the time. They just don't have the staffing,” he said.
Melanie Bolen happily showed her vaccine card before having lunch inside Fred 62, an upscale diner in the city’s Los Feliz neighborhood.
“I mean, I’m fine with that," Bolen said. "If that’s what’s needed to help get things over with this pandemic, I’m all for it.”
While many cold-weather states are seeing sharp increases in cases, California’s per capita rate has been among the nation’s lowest for two months and that has kept hospitalizations relatively low after a late-summer surge.
In the last two weeks, Los Angeles County hospitalizations have fallen about 10%, mirroring the statewide trend. State forecasts show a continuing decline through Christmas.
Among LA county’s roughly 10 million people, 82% of eligible residents now have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 74% of those eligible are fully vaccinated, according to public health officials.
Diane Pullman wore a cloth mask around her neck, ready to pull on when she met a friend for lunch in Eagle Rock. She keeps a digital image of her vaccine card as the home screen of her phone.
“It’s become second nature. Mask on. Vaccine card ready. I honestly don’t find it that disruptive any more,” Pullman said, adding that she hopes the inoculations will be effective on the new Omicron variant of the virus that's spreading overseas.
Omicron has been detected in Canada after first emerging in Africa and then spreading to Europe. The California Department of Public Health warned that “it is only a matter of time” before Omicron is detected in the U.S.
“New variants will continue to evolve as long as there are large proportions of unvaccinated people,” the department said in a statement Sunday urging residents to get vaccinated and follow rules regarding masks in indoor public spaces.
Associated Press video journalist Eugene Garcia contributed to this report.